Climate Gulf May Get Short Shrift in First Trump, Xi Meeting

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Dean Scott

There will be plenty for President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping to talk about in their first face-to-face meeting given differences on issues ranging from trade to North Korea, but both leaders may choose to tiptoe around a growing divide on what to do about climate change.

The April 6-7 meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida comes one week after the U.S. president took a big step toward dismantling Obama administration climate policies, including reversing power plant carbon pollution limits that are at the heart of the U.S. pledge to the Paris climate pact. Trump has yet to make a formal decision on the Paris climate pact but vowed during the campaign that he’d pull the U.S. out of the global deal.

China by contrast has has shown no signs of backing away from 2015 accord and if anything has signaled a willingness to step into the breach if the U.S. backs out. “All parties should work together to implement the Paris Agreement,” Xi said Jan. 18 in Geneva, just days before Trump’s inauguration. “China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations,” Xi said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Fang last week reiterated Xi’s pledge, saying that “as a responsible large developing country, China’s resolve, aims, and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change.”

North Korea, Not Climate

But neither leader is expected to highlight their differences over climate at their first meeting, in part because there are more than enough thorny security and trade issues to broach in what is actually well shy of what has been billed as a two-day summit in Florida: Trump and Xi won’t begin face-to-face talks until April 6 and are slated to conclude their inaugural meeting after lunch April 7, according to the White House.

There are also pressing issues such as increased concern about North Korean missile tests, which will leave little time on the agenda to bring up climate change, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

“I think: Korea and Korea,” McCain told Bloomberg BNA April 4 when asked if he expected climate issues to be addressed by the two leaders. Senate Democrats who worry that Trump’s rollback of Obama climate policies may just be the first step toward withdrawal from the Paris Agreement say at this point they’ll consider no news from the Trump-Xi summit to be good news.

“I’m worried if climate [were] on the agenda, what the outcome could be,” the top Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), told Bloomberg BNA April 4. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Trump “has gotten off to a horrendous start” on the climate issue.

“I don’t see any sign of him pulling his head out of the sand,” Van Hollen told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s a sad state of affairs when China has become more of a leader on climate change than the United States,” he said.

Once a Bright Spot in U.S.-China Relations

It was not that long ago that climate change was seen as one of the few issues that could help temper differences between U.S. and China, with President Barack Obama and Xi using their meetings to pledge cooperation on climate issues and to push other nations to conclude more than two decades of international negotiations with a global climate deal.

The world’s two largest emitters used a November 2014 Beijing summit to jointly announce U.S. and China pledges that helped jump-start United Nations talks that produced a climate pact a year later in Paris. In Beijing, Obama vowed the U.S. would cut emissions up to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels; Xi pledged China would peak its carbon emissions by 2030, and possibly earlier, and bolster China’s use of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2030.

By contrast, the climate issue barely got a mention in an April 4 White House briefing of reporters ahead of the Trump-Xi meeting—and only because a reporter mentioned in passing the last administration’s penchant for using the climate issue to help smooth over U.S.-China divisions. Whether Trump and Xi might discuss the Paris climate deal or the climate issue went unmentioned in the briefing.

Asked if the Trump administration has an issue similar to Obama’s use of climate to bridge disagreements, a senior White House official pointed to security concerns related to North Korea, which has continued a series of missile tests viewed with particular alarm by the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

“Well, I’ll tell you that we would like to work on North Korea together,” the White House official said, adding “there is an opportunity” for U.S. and China cooperation to ensure “a safe and de-nuclearized” Korean peninsula. The State Department April 4 confirmed yet another missile test-fire by North Korea earlier in the day—just one day before the Trump-Xi summit—drawing a brusque response from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea,” Tillerson said. “We have no further comment.”

Skepticism of China Climate Leadership

There is plenty of skepticism over the prospect of China—which overtook the U.S. as the world’s top emitter over the last decade—emerging as a global leader on climate change, in part because the rapidly developing nation until recently had resisted taking action to address its emissions.

But congressional Republicans including Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) argue that China’s pledge to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 essentially gave it license to increase its emissions, year in and year out, until that date. “That says, `we’ll continue to increase our emissions until then, and then we’ll look at slowing down our emissions’ ” after 2030, Inhofe told Bloomberg BNA. To Inhofe, China had good reason to cooperate with Obama on climate because the U.S. pledge required actual cuts in its emissions, adding to fuel costs for U.S. manufacturers and thus making them less competitive manufacturers in China.

“In my mind, they miss Obama,” Inhofe said, because China “wants us to start restricting [emissions] and they want Obama’s war on coal to continue so they’ll be in a position to inherit our manufacturing base,” the senator said.

—With assistance from Rachel Leven.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at DScott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Environment & Energy Report